Budget doesn't deliver enough for regional Victoria: Nationals, Farmers
The Victorian Opposition has delivered a negative report card on the Andrews Labor government's budget released on Thursday, saying it fails to invest adequately in regional Victoria and introduces unwarranted new taxes.
The Liberal-National Opposition has told FlowNews24 the state budget is overloaded with debt, new taxes and no significant delivery for regional Victoria.
You can hear the interview with the deputy opposition leader Peter Walsh in the podcast player below. The analysis of the Victorian budget for regional Victorians follows further below.
The Victorian Liberals lamented the budget’s $22 billion in cost blowouts on infrastructure, with member for Ripon and shadow treasurer Louise Staley saying in a statement that the Andrews Labor Government has no control over the budget.
The deputy leader of the Opposition and leader of the Victorian Nationals, Peter Walsh, told FlowNews24 on Friday morning:
"Victorians will be taxed more and will actually get less, particular for regional Victoria.The budget also relies on the government keeping a lid on the coronavirus pandemic, with another round of lockdowns likely to negatively affect the bottom line.
The Andrews Labor Government noted that it is spending $3.7 billion on regional Victoria, making a total of $26 billion spent since 2015.
Agriculture and Trade
The government will invest $11.7 million to strengthen 'agriculture traceability systems and project Victorian jobs' by establishing an information hub and new systems to prove the origin and quality of Victorian produce. The measure will also promote Victoria's 'paddock to plate journey'.
Minister for Regional Development and Agriculture Maryanne Thomas told FlowNews24 on Friday afternoon the intention of the scheme:
We're very, very proud of our agricultural sector, such an important part of Victoria's economy and of course a great export industry.
"We are implementing a traceability scheme - we've got a package in place to provide more information and access and understanding to farmers on the importance of traceability across all of our livestock and horticultural sectors.
"We've got money in that to do some research on traceability and build up knowledge and understanding. Increasingly our consumers want to know where their food has come from and the story behind it.
"Our export markets and our global competitors are looking for traceability to be in place - its not just food safety and biosecurity but its about maximising the great recognition and our industry has for being clean and green in Victoria.
Mr Walsh lamented the cuts in the trade budget when he said it was important that new markets were found for some commodities due to punitive tariffs imposed by China.
"We work hard every day to assist farmers to expand their international and interstate markets. Agriculture is already a very large export industry here in Victoria. We're committed to helping our farmers diversify their export markets."
On Thursday, the Victorian Nationals pointed out that funding allocated for Queensland fruit fly prevention represented a cut in real terms, not additional money to address the problem.
Regional rail and roads
The budget allocates $613.1 million to the state's regional train network for maintenance works and upgrades to communication systems to increase reliability, ensuring a 'world‑class rail system' for regional communities and more efficient movement of freight.
On rail freight, member for Murray Plains Mr Walsh was disappointed there was no money applied to the Murray Basin Rail Project:
"To finish the Murray Basin Rail project the government needed to match the Commonwealth's $5 million to do the business case to finish that project.
"There's no $5 million - but there's over $22 billion to make up for cost overruns in Melbourne infrastructure projects - but nothing for that particular Murray Basin Rail project. It's so important to northern and western Victoria."
Minister for Ports, Freight, Fishing and Boating Melissa Horne said in a statement the Labor government would 'continue supporting the growth of rail freight to get trucks off local roads' noting that freight volumes are expected to double by 2051:
“A more efficient freight network supports our regional producers get their produce to port more quickly – that’s good news for local economies and local jobs.”
The budget did not highlight any commitment this financial year towards that network, other than $32.4 million in road and bridge upgrades and $3.6 million to 'support the transport of goods by rail and help reduce costs.'
Shadow spokesperson for rail and member for Euroa, Steph Ryan, said regional Victorians needed a plan to fix Victoria’s failing country train services but instead got more taxes, more debt and fewer jobs.
Mr Walsh agreed:
"There's been some skulduggery in the budget where money that had originally been announced for regional rail projects has now been moved to the city to make up for those cost overruns."
Victorian Farmers Federation president Emma Germano said they were disappointed in the budget's level of investment in regional roads and rail:
"We also know that and have been calling for a long time investment in rail infrastructure to get some of these heavy vehicles off the roads so we can keep them in better nick.
"We've just seen a real failure to acknowledge that infrastructure spend that's absolutely required to keep the state moving.
"At the current level of investment it'll take a thousand years before our roads are up to scratch."
Shadow minister for rural roads, the Liberals' Roma Britnell, was disappointed there was no additional road maintenance funding in the budget:
"Labor’s failure to invest any new funds into road maintenance shows it simply doesn’t care about the country.
"Daniel Andrews and Labor have spent more money patching up cost blowouts on major projects in Melbourne than they have on fixing our rural and regional roads.
"This budget increases taxes but country motorists will have nothing to show for the extra they are paying.
However, the Roads Minister Ben Carroll hit back, saying in a statement:
"We are making our regional roads safer, stronger and more reliable for everyone – not just improving journeys, but delivering local jobs when Victorians need them most.
"Our teams have delivered more than 1,800 kilometres of better roads across our state – including key tourist routes that are getting busier as more people take the opportunity to get out and explore our beautiful state."
Minister for Regional Development and Member for Macedon Mary-Anne Thomas also said in a statement:
“Regional roads are the backbone of our economy and the gateway to the many wonderful country towns across our state – safer and more reliable roads are what country Victorians deserve.”
Whilst the budget makes a record funding contribution to mental health accompanied by a new levy on businesses in the form of 0.5 per cent of their national turnover if it is higher than $10 million per annum, and 1 per cent if national turnover is over $100 million. The levy is expected to raise $4 billion in forward estimates, whereas expenditure exceeds $5 billion over the same period - including $700 million earmarked for regional mental health. The regional spending includes new and expanded mental health support services at Horsham and Swan Hill.
Minister for Mental Health and Acting Premier James Merlino said the cost of inaction outweighed the levy cost, telling a Committee for Economic Development gathering on Friday:
"A levy is so vitally important. Without it, we know what the problem is, we know how to fund it but we're not interested in doing it because the political discomfort associated with the levy is something we're not prepared to bear.
"Any politician that squibs it on that basis is part of the problem, not the solution."
Mr Walsh said the new Mental Health and Wellbeing Levy was unwarranted and amounted to a new payroll tax, asserting that it was the government's responsibility to fund health services from its existing budget.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Friday morning that the impost was irresponsible:
"This is the worst time that you could increase taxes on the Australian economy.
"This is self-defeating."
Mr Walsh said he could not see anything in the budget committed to mental health beds in regional Victoria:
"What's needed for regions is actually mental health beds.
"At the moment, if a family has a family member who has severe mental health issues who needs to be hospitalised, they effectively have to go to Melbourne to get a mental health bed.
"If someones having mental health issues, they're far better off being treated closer to home where they have the support of their family and they don't have to travel."
Mr Merlino pointed to 50 beds for 16-to-25-year-olds committed in the budget to areas including the Grampians and Hume regions. Member for Bendigo East, Jacinta Allan, said the spending would put treatment and care close by:
“This investment means more young people will be able to receive treatment and care close to their family, support networks and local community – which we know contributes positively to clinical and personal recovery.”
Shadow spokesperson for mental health and Nationals MP for Lowan, Emma Kealy, lamented the continued funding uncertainty for the Wimmera Primary Care Partnership across the west Wimmera, Horsham, Hindmarsh and Yarriambiack council areas:
“The government has been handing out temporary last-minute lifelines to the Rural Outreach Program for the past few years, but has failed to outline in the budget whether this crucial program will have the funding to continue after June 30.
“Will the new clinical outreach services the government announced replicate the Rural Outreach Program, or is this trusted and proved program being lost altogether, along with the fantastic mental health workers it employs?
Regional housing and homelessness
The government has allocated $193 million across the state to help people eat risk of homelessness, including a Private Rental Assistance Program. A further $47 million will be spent statewide on the Homelessness Rough Sleeping Action Plan, including outreach teams in Swan Hill, Bendigo and Warrnambool to get people sleeping rough into stable housing. Six new residential units will be built for $9.1 million to provide an Aboriginal family violence refuge in the Horsham region.
Whilst the budget's 'Big Housing Build' proposes the construction of new homes to address the housing shortage, FlowNews24 has been unable to identify any nominated site works in the 2021/22 budget outside the greater Melbourne metropolitan area.
Minister Thomas said on Friday afternoon that the $5 billion of the budget delivered late last year included a commitment that one quarter of that housing would be delivered in regional Victoria, equating to over $1.2 billion spent on regional social and affordable housing :
"There is definitely a housing shortage, it is one that we are aware of.
"What we have seen in the past 12 months coming out of the coronavirus pandemic is the largest single migration of people from metropolitan Melbourne to regional Victoria. We see that very much as a vote of confidence in regional Victoria, it's a great place to live, work and invest and the market needs to keep apace with people's lifestyle decisions."
The budget commits $55 million to drive more Visit Victoria destination marketing and engagement while allocating $8.9 million to restructure Regional Tourism Boards to 'Visitor Economy Partnerships'.
Tourism Minister Martin Pakula said:
“We’re not waiting for visitors to stumble across Victoria – we’re telling our great travel story across the state and across Australia, and eventually we’ll tell it again across the globe. We’re investing in tourism promotion because it means jobs for Victorians.”
The government has also given $11.2 million to keep the 'much loved Puffing Billy heritage railway' operating in the Dandenong Ranges.
The budget includes $3.4 million for critical repairs to the Apollo Bay breakwater.
The VFF's Emma Germano wondered if the 2022/23 pre-election budget would be more generous for political reasons:
"We've got a state running out of money. We know that they need to plug the holes from somewhere.
"They probably need to give themselves enough runway so that a pre-election budget next year feels like Christmas to everybody.
"At the moment we're thinking it's a little bit light on."